Such Happy Days for the trio starring in 1950s revival
By Bill Mandel, Inquirer Staff Writer
Three TV stars/philosophers were getting bent on chocolate shakes.
It was the dusty end of what seemed an endless (14 days) promotional tour for their hit 1950s-revival ABC-TV show “Happy Days,” and Ron Howard, Donny Most and Henry Winkler were ripe to be knocked off their PR conscious pedestals . . . and what better bludgeon to the truth than ice cream?
The unblinking eye of Neilsen tells us that on Tuesday nights at 8, a great many folks in this country are watching Howard, 21, as Richie Cunningham; Most, 20, as Ralph Malph; and Winkler, 28, as Fonzie, growing up in 1956 — or at least the 1956 someone would like to believe existed.
Why the show’s great popularity? the boys were asked between chocolate slurps.
Ron Howard, the show’s star, spoke:
“It’s simply nostalgia for an era most of the kids who watch the show never lived through,” he said, his apple-blossom face sincere through the dimples. “To kids, parents are demigods, mysterious, unknown. Here’s a show that gives kids an insight into the history of their parents.”
“Events have been moving faster and faster all the time,” Winkler, the brooder of the trio, put in, his face and hands alive in jiving motion. “It just seems to me that America got stuck in the ’50s. It was the last time anything seemed to make sense, the last time the American myth had any chance at all of being true.
“This country still has the mentality of the 50s, but events are of the ’70s. Faster and faster. People like to remember a time when things made sense, that’s all.”
“Happy Days” was inspired by the success of “American Graffiti,” the movie that brought the 1950s revival started by “Grease” and old rock shows to mass public attention.
Where “Graffiti” dealt with sexual exploration and the grittier aspects of coming of age, “Happy Days” is kind of a pop-psyche Archie comic book, full of cross-generational conflict and the working-out of everyday problems common in adolescence.
The influence of parents is something Donny Most feels is missing in the real world of the 1970s.
“Parents have kind of abdicated as the prime authority group,” he said. “In the 50s, kids looked to their parents for what was right or wrong, or at least for what was allowed. Now, parents don’t understand what the hell their kids are about.
“The primary authority is now the peer group.”
Ron Howard was born in 1953, Donny Most in 1954. Obviously, 1956 isn’t going to mean much to them in a personal sense. But they remember, nonetheless.
“I had two best friends with older brothers who had hot rods,” recalled Howard, who has lived in California all his life.
“So I know what the life was about. I remember one kid I knew was 14, so he couldn’t have a car. He had a bike and he’d ride in front of bigger kids with rods and yell something bad about the cars. Then he’d drive down an alley too narrow for the car to follow. The car was the person, no question about it.”
Henry Winkler was 13 in 1958, and he remembers the era as being hateful.
“I was willing to show emotion in the 50s,” said the native New Yorker, “but no one was interested in that then. It was kind of queer to show life went on inside your head. Anyone with any sensitivity was considered very strange.”
On their promotional tour, the “Happy Days” trio have been inundated by fans. In Houston, 25,000 kids from 13 to 17 showed up to scream praise at them, kids who were not even alive during the 1950s.
What’s the link?
First off, there’s the music, the early rock ‘n’ roll that is still in circulation; it provides an aural connection to the era and what it must have been like.
For the young fan’s explanation, we turn to 14-year-old Ed Nelton, of Berwyn, a “Happy Days” addict.
Ed was not alive during the 1950s, but his memories of the era are golden. How come, Ed?
“There was more freedom then,” Ed responded. “People just cruised around in cars and had a good time. These days, our parents won’t let us do that because, I guess, there’s more we can do wrong. Then, there weren’t any drugs and the parents weren’t worried too much about sex. Everything seemed like a small town. It was nice.”
Ed got his views on the ’50s from “Happy Days.”
As people, the “Happy Days” bunch are just your everyday, ordinary TV stars.
Howard, who plays an all-middle Ameri- can boy, has been in TV and movies since 1958. He did the Andy Griffith TV show from 1960 to 1968. He was the cute kid in “The Music Man,” and most recently starred in “Graffiti.”
Most, who plays a neurotic practical joker who’d like to be cool but isn’t, is a Brooklyn boy who did a lot of commercials revolving around his cute, freckle-faced look and then went off to Lehigh University. A stint on “Room 222,” and he got the “Happy Days” job.
Winkler, who portrays a high-school dropout with a heavy dose of noble-savage wisdom, actually has an M. A. in theater and dramaturgy from Yale. He’s done one Broadway play and six off-off Broadway plays and, of course, a zillion commercials.
For Most and Winkler, recognition by the public is a heady experience, a sort of life-giving ambrosia that hasn’t seemed to turn their heads in any bad direction.
Howard, of course, has been a star all his life.
There are some things, though, that one never gets used to.
Coming out of Dewey’s on N. Broad St., still wired from their chocolate shakes, the three young men walked up to a long, black, limousine and asked the driver, “Is this car for us?”
Assured it was, they got in, Most saying to himself, or anyone within hearing, “Is this a dream, or what?”